Editor’s Note: This article was originally titled, “Changing Game Plans in Arkansas” in the Aug-Sept 2023 issue of Fly Fisherman.
Hope is a powerful motivator, which is the reason I’ve made over a dozen road trips to Arkansas’s White River since the late 1990s. Each trip I hope for just one opportunity to catch a world-class brown trout. When I say “world-class,” I’m not talking about a record-setting fish (although that would be nice) but instead a brown trout anyone around the globe would be excited to catch. I believe the White River and the surrounding tailwaters offer anglers the opportunity to swim and drift their flies past world-class brown trout, and even rainbow trout.
Arkansas is not a state trout anglers would initially identify with world-class trout, but massive hydro projects like Bull Shoals Dam were constructed for flood control and electric power. The byproduct was cold water discharging from these bottom-release dams, creating some of the top tailwater trout fisheries in the U.S. While I fish many other tailwaters, the White River and other nearby tailwaters continue to offer the best opportunities to catch trophy trout. Even the years I fail to net a monster trout, I will hook, or at least spot, a leviathan below the surface. Knowing that my fly may be swimming near such a fish is enough to keep me coming back each year. Hope is a powerful motivator.
The purpose of this article is to share lessons I earned from a recent six-day fishing experience on the White River system. Like the rest of humanity, I’m a creature of habit and dig myself into routines.
Recently, I’ve talked and written about jigging streamers—an approach using a Euro system with a heavily weighted jig streamer to achieve depth quickly with a slower presentation. [See “Euro Jigging” in the February-March 2022 issue of Fly Fisherman, or online at flyfisherman.com. The Editor.]
I look at streamer fishing in the same manner as nymphing—a subsurface presentation where I believe presentation depth and speed may be more important than the pattern itself.
This Euro/jig streamer tactic has become so good on my home waters that I rarely use other streamer tactics. I was planning for this method to be just as deadly on the White River as it was for me on my home waters. In preparing for my trip to the White River I spent most of my free time tying jig-style streamers. Jig streamers took up 80 percent of my fly boxes. However, I’ve learned in the past that you need to hope for the best but plan for the worst. So, I added a handful of larger articulated swimming and jerk/strip-style streamers—just in case the jig streamer approach didn’t produce.
Pros and Cons
The benefit of the jig streamer approach is that the streamer descends rapidly, faster than traditional streamer tactics due to reducing the mass of the line and leader encountering the water. Think Euro nymphing with a heavy streamer. It’s a tactic good for dissecting smaller areas of water, however, there is a downside. The casting and presentations are shorter than with traditional floating and sinking lines. Jig streamer is a tactic best served within a 20- or 30-foot range and—most importantly—when you have a clear and defined target area to fish.
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The White River is massive in comparison to my smaller Pennsylvania limestone streams, and the vastness of the large flats on the White provides less definitive features. It does have the occasional riffle and run at every turn, but most of the White River resembles a long, uniform, featureless, flowing flat. At the surface, every square inch of these long flowing flats looks void of casting targets. While floating the White River I sometimes feel I’m fishing a lake. Targeting trout is challenging if you don’t know where the mid-channel depressions, drop-offs, and submerged habitat is lying below these massive flats. We knew several of the key midstream locations from previous trips, and by watching where live-bait anglers were drifting, but felt we weren’t efficiently targeting the productive water.
If you fish the White River regularly, you’ll know where all the midstream obstructions, drops, ledges, or any possible feeding locations are located.
It takes years to learn all the hot spots on a system as large as the White River. But once you know the spots, using a short-range tactic like Euro jigging allows you to get your streamer into the strike zone quicker than any other streamer tactic I know. If you don’t know the spots, a searching tactic that covers more water may be more useful, which is exactly what we decided to do after jigging streamers for a few days on the White River with limited success.
Typically on the White, targeting the banks is ideal during periods of high generation when the strong current encourages trout to seek softer and slower-moving water along the edges. Higher water and stronger currents may also encourage larger fish to position close to the bank during feeding windows. On the flip side, low water conditions make targeting banks challenging, as larger trout may shy away from shallow and unprotected water when they may feel vulnerable to predators.
There was very little generation during our first two days of fishing, so our best option was to fish farther away from the bank and focus on deeper water. With limited knowledge of those midriver targets, we were fortunate enough to pull out some quality trout while jigging streamers, but we felt like we were hunting for a needle in a haystack. It appeared most of the larger trout were lurking within the midriver depths given the bright sun, low water, and clear water.
Changing weather conditions over the following four days opened an opportunity to work along the banks with more traditional streamer tactics.
Several key factors contributed to our switch from a deep-water Euro jigging approach to hunting the shallows with floating lines and Chocklett’s Feather Changers. First, we started at first light and fished until dark. We know large trout hunt during low-light periods, especially at dusk and dawn. Large trout will leave the comforts of depth and move into the shallows to hunt in literally inches of water in low-light conditions. Every morning we started our float 30 to 45 minutes before sunrise. Each morning we heard or witnessed the occasional large trout hunting in the shallows. Second, we had heavy cloud cover and heavy rainfall the last two days of our trip. Even with low flows during midday, the low light and heavy rain created a cloak of darkness for the larger trout to hunt in shallow waters during the daylight hours.
In addition, many of the feeder streams started pumping mud into the tailwater the last two days, creating just enough turbidity for larger trout to comfortably feed in shallow water during low flows.
Third, strong sustained winds all six days with the occasional wind gust of 30 to 40 mph was more than enough to create a choppy surface most of the day. Just as with lake fishing, a little chop on the surface provides another layer of comfort to large trout as they hunt in shallow water.
The water levels remained low but the conditions gave us hope that larger trout were hunting in the shallows. Instead of casting out into the abyss with a jig/streamer approach, now I had defined targets along the bank. Looking at points, partially submerged logs, gradual drops, and even the mud lines of the feeder streams pumping mud into the White River all provided targets any trout angler would notice.
Rigging For Shallows
We had to think about tactics and rigging for this new scenario. Instead of the deeper midriver sections, we were now working shallow water ranging from only a couple inches to a foot.
Our jig streamers were too heavy. They would hang up immediately after landing. Plus, we needed to cast long distances due to the low-water scenario. Despite the surface chop, low light, and somewhat turbid water conditions, you need to stay as far from the trout as possible if you’re hunting ultra-skinny water from a boat. During the low-light periods of early morning and late evening, a 20- to 30-foot cast was acceptable, but longer casts of 40 to 50 feet were needed during the daytime.
Given the fact that much of the water I wanted to fish was barely 6 inches deep, I decided to go with a Scientific Anglers MPX floating line. Full-sinking and sinking-tip lines come to mind initially when fishing streamers, but I feel weight-forward floating lines are the most underused streamer lines. Even slow-sinking tips or intermediate fly lines resulted in constant hang-ups in this ultra-skinny environment, so the floating line, along with a 10-foot leader was ideal for swimming patterns at slow, medium, or fast speeds without constantly snagging bottom.
The last two mornings we had dirty water, so I needed a slow retrieve to provide the trout more time to locate the pattern in the darker water. With a sinking-tip line or intermediate line in skinny water, I’d need to fish the pattern fast to prevent hanging up on stream bottom, and fishing your pattern too fast is one of the biggest mistakes you can make in shallow, dirty water. You need to think not only about the depth you plan to fish your streamer, but also the speed of your retrieve. This thought process is so important when choosing streamer lines.
Keep the streamer leader for a floating line simple. Using a blood knot, I used a 5-foot section of 15-pound Maxima for my butt section, connected to 5 feet of 0X Scientific Anglers Absolute Fluorocarbon. I used a nail knot to connect the Maxima directly to the fly line. When fishing longer streamer leaders (longer than the length of the rod) I want to eliminate the loop connection in fear of it getting stuck in the guides when playing a big fish. A clean nail knot with a smooth coating of UV resin reduces the chances of the fly line hanging within the guides.
During low flows many of the shallow bank areas on the White River take on a technical spring creek feel, where fish have plenty of time to look at a streamer before deciding to strike or refuse. Even when the water is ruffled by wind or a bit off-colored, these fish are tough during low flows. This is by far some of the more challenging streamer conditions I’ve ever faced, as fish sometimes appear to be just as fussy chasing down a streamer as they are when rising to an adult midge on a calm flat. These are the conditions when I feel a streamer pattern needs to be far more lifelike when moving through the water.
Jig patterns are excellent choices when fishing faster and deeper sections of water where depth penetration is priority number one, but they lack the realism needed to fool many of the White River’s larger trout hunting the shallows. This is when I bring out Blane Chocklett’s Feather Changer.
Game Changer patterns are often overkill for most of the trout fishing on my home waters, as dense patterns with a little jiggy action is all I need to fool those resident fish. Sometimes it feels like I’m moving from the minor leagues to the big leagues when I travel from Pennsylvania to Arkansas. You need to up your game when moving into the big leagues, and this is the reason I always carry a couple Feather Changers when traveling to bigger tailwaters.
The reason for the Feather Changer is twofold. First, the natural feathers absorb water and sink just below the surface without needing a sinking or sinking-tip line. This means I can fish a floating line, and use a slow swimming retrieve and still avoid constantly catching submerged vegetation. This is also why I grease the first couple feet of my fly line—along with the entire Maxima butt section—with a floatant paste to keep the tip of the line near the surface.
The Feather Changer has an insane amount of movement. When fishing a streamer with an ultra-slow retrieve, I frequently stall or pause the retrieve to let the fly hang for several seconds before beginning the next movement. The Feather Changer continues to move and undulate long after the retrieve stops. It’s unlike any pattern I’ve ever seen.
When playing a slow game of cat-and-mouse with larger trout in shallow water, a fly that moves after the retrieve is the single most important factor in whether a fish takes the bait or not. And this is coming from a guy who spends a lot of his time Euro nymphing, and believes fly pattern is not as important as the speed and depth of the presentation. However, in these challenging streamer fishing environments, I feel pattern choice could possibly be the biggest factor in your success.
It’s important to note that the few times I found myself fishing deeper water, I simply added a large split-shot to the nose of the Feather Changer and added several feet of tippet to achieve correct depth. This is why I always carry a few large split-shot when using this floating line tactic. It’s not pretty but it does work.
Many Game Changer-style streamers (including the Feather Changer) are not meant to be stripped or jerked during the retrieve. Instead, many Changers are designed to be pulled fast or slow through the water, allowing the articulated shanks to swim with a realistic serpentine quality. My preferred retrieve for the Feather Changer is a long, slow pull with the line hand while my rod hand wiggles the rod tip back and forth. I first read about this retrieve in Gary Borger’s book Presentation years ago, and it has remained a favorite for swimming-style presentations, especially when fishing at a slow pace. This is why I prefer Feather Changers for ultra-slow presentations as the pattern has amazing movement and allows me to keep the fly within the strike zone for an extended period with lifelike movement.
The tactic that worked so well during our trip was casting immediately near the bank, and then slowly swimming the Feather Changer over a drop-off, depression, or submerged logjam. The stalled Changer—in combination with the floating line—just suspended in the water while continuing to wiggle with a tantalizing motion. Many of our strikes occurred during the long pauses between pulls.
The combination of a floating line, long leader, and Feather Changer continues to provide me the confidence I need when facing the most challenging streamer conditions—low and clear water. My original plan of fishing the jig streamer did produce several 20-inch+ trout during our first two days, and would have likely produced a few more during our trip. However, I firmly believe the handful of 24-inch and bigger trout we caught during our last four days would not have occurred if we didn’t switch to the floating line and Feather Changer approach.
Sometimes pattern choice is the most important factor to success. This wasn’t the first time I’ve used this approach. I’ve used it with great success on other technical trout waters including the South Holston and Delaware rivers.
As someone who prides himself in tying and fishing simple patterns, sometimes I realize good presentation alone can only go so far. This is when I need to change both my mindset and game plan to incorporate sharper tools in the toolkit when dealing with the most discriminating fish. And this is why I’m thankful for Blane Chocklett’s Feather Changer—it’s the silver bullet I always have ready when dealing with larger and smarter river wolves.
George Daniel is the author of Nymph Fishing: New Angles, Tactics, and Techniques (Stackpole, 2018). He is a Fly Fisherman contributing editor and owner of Livin’ on the Fly, an educational/guide company in Pennsylvania. He was a coach for both the U.S. Youth Fly Fishing Team and Fly Fishing Team USA and now teaches fly fishing at Penn State University. His last story in Fly Fisherman was “Drop Shot: Rolling in the Deep” in the Feb.-March 2023 issue.